Why we must "elevate" the voices of care-experienced children - Lemn Sissay MBE

The voices of care-experienced children must be placed “at the heart” of the Government’s independent care review, with long term funding implications to raise the ambitions of young people, a northern foster child, poet and university chancellor has said, Ruth Dacey reports.

Lemn Sissay, who was awarded an MBE for services to literature, has made the call as a new report, revealed by The Yorkshire Post, warned of the widening life prospects and opportunity gap of the most vulnerable children when they leave care.

Mr Sissay, 53, told The Yorkshire Post: “It seems like the care system a lot of the time is putting out fires.

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“I do hope the Government highlights the voice of care leavers - not just in this care review but afterwards - we have an opportunity here to step up and help those who are most in need.

Pictured, Lemn Sissay MBE, the award-winning writer and broadcaster. Photo credit: Hamish Brown

“These young people are an opportunity for us to show ourselves at our best, by forming strong, deep, solutions for them.

“All of the different areas of need for a child in care need to be answered by our government on behalf of us as a society.”

The Wigan-born poet is no stranger to challenges faced by care-experienced children, after he himself had a difficult start in life, growing up as a child of the state with no knowledge as to the identity or whereabouts of his birth mother.

His mother, a young upper-class Ethiopian, arrived in the UK in 1966 to study, and after giving birth left her child under the protection of social services. She wrote letters to Wigan Council to return her baby once she was better able to look after him. Her requests were ignored. Instead, he was renamed Norman by a social worker called Norman and permanently fostered by a local white family of devout Christians.

Lemn Sissay said the aftermath of the independent care review should be used as a catalyst for change to empower and invest in young people to combat the inequalities that are holding back the most vulnerable in society.Photo credit: Abobe Stock

But abandoned by his foster family aged 12, he stayed in four different children’s homes, ending up in the notorious Wood End assessment centre, where he says he was imprisoned, bullied and physically abused by staff. He was never afforded the opportunity to put down roots - left school at the age of 15 and at 18, he left the care system, without a penny to his name or any qualifications.

While acknowledging that the care system has improved provisions for young people “significantly” since Mr Sissay, 53, who has since won redress from Wigan council for his mistreatment as a child, left the care system, he said the aftermath of the independent care review should be used as a catalyst for change to empower and invest in young people to combat the inequalities that are holding back the most vulnerable in society.

He said: “We are more aware of care leavers now than ever before in my lifetime.

“When I left care there was no provision for care leavers to go to university. I do believe we are making progress.

Pictured, Lemn Sissay, who was elected as the Chancellor of The University of Manchester in 2015. Photo credit: Hamish Brown

“The corporate parent in each area of society - looks at the needs of the care leaver - it's happening more now than ever in housing, in education, in health etc. but it is still not good enough.”

Mr Sissay, who was elected as the Chancellor of The University of Manchester in 2015, stressed the need for the Government to be “overly ambitious” for care leavers with long-term investment at each stage of a care-experienced child’s life, to help bolster aspirations for the future.

He said: “If the Government is the legal parent of the child when they are in care - then they are basically being a bad parent if that child is in need.

“We need our government to use all the examples of good parenthood. We do have money in the kitty to be able to support young people in care into housing, education, etc. and we need to release that money and show ourselves to be the best parents we can be in society.”

Lemn Sissay has an extraordinary body of work that packs an emotional punch. It forces the reader to realise the privileges they may take for granted, and that determination in the face of adversity is essential. Photo credit: Hamish Brown

The award-winning writer and broadcaster, who has an extraordinary body of work that forces the reader to realise the privileges they may take for granted, and that determination in the face of adversity is essential, added: “You can tell how well the care system has done by how well a care leaver is positioned in society.

“A care leaver should never be ashamed of being in care, the care system should be so good… so brilliant - they should have all of the resources we can get to them.

“The best education, the best health, they need to feel that our society is aspiring for them to be better, to be more educated, to be future leaders, just as a parent feels for its child, and anything less than that is dumbing the child in care down.”

“Reach for the top of the tree and you may get to the first branch but reach for the stars and you'll get to the top of the tree. My primary aim is to inspire and be inspired.”

A special report by The Yorkshire Post reveals today:

- A new major report, by the University of Sheffield, entitled: Journeying Through Care: Pathways to University, which aims to shape government policy and challenge the stigma associated with young people who are care experienced and to promote support.

- There are fears a lack of investment in all stages of the care journey is stifling children’s ambitions and life prospects as an underfunded social care system, with a sudden cut-off from the age of 18.

- Across Yorkshire and the Humber there are 8,568 children in care following on from official figures released earlier this year which showed levels had reached a 10-year-high - with 78,150 children in care in England at the end of March 2019.

- North Yorkshire was the only area in the region to see a decrease in figures for children in care with 428 - a decrease of four per cent compared to 2015.

- Ahead of the delayed independent care review in England, Boris Johnson’s government are being urged to substantially invest in all stages of the care journey to deliver stability and support to children when they most need it.

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